Food rescue is a big job. But it’s not the way to end hunger

Food rescue is a big job. But it’s not the way to end hunger

A few decades ago, if you had passed through Stavely, a farming and ranching community in southern Alberta, you would have seen lines of boxcars at one of the town’s grain elevators. Now, the rail line is closed and all the grain elevators have been torn down but one, a massive structure near the highway that can’t be missed.

With the lines of trains long gone, if you passed through Stavely early during the COVID-19 pandemic, your attention might have instead been drawn by the long lineups of people waiting for free food outside of Jaquie Duhacek’s house.

This is where Duhacek started Alberta Food Rescue and Distributiona food rescue organization serving rural communities. Over the past three years, it has expanded from a pop-up tent at the side of her house to giveaways all over southern Alberta to a Fort Macleod warehouse. Every month, they provide food to roughly 12,000 people. Many people come every week, she says, relying on her organization for 80 per cent of their food.

The organization is supported mainly by private donors and funding is an ongoing challenge, she says. Lately, as the number of organizations offering food programs has grown, it’s also been getting harder to obtain food to give away.

“It’s very, very hard to keep up with the needs,” Duhacek says. “It’s a struggle because we are big, but the demand for what we do is big.”

Alberta Food Rescue and Distribution is one of thousands of food programs, food banks and non-profit organizations receiving food from Second HarvestCanada’s largest food rescue organization. Volunteers give out healthy food, everything from frozen sandwiches to pork to carrots to muffins, that otherwise would have been thrown away by businesses such as Sobeys and Starbucks and left to slowly rot in a landfill, with each tonne of food producing nearly four tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Nearly 60 per cent of all food produced in Canada is wasted while about 30 per cent of all food produced globally is wasted. Food waste happens at all stages. For example, produce may be left unharvested due to labour shortagesor food may be damaged as it’s transported long distances. At the household levelthe average Canadian throws away 79 kilograms of food each year, while the average American discards 55 kilograms.

While so much is being wasted, in Canada there is an ever-increasing need. According to research by Second Harvest, the number of food programs operated by non-profit organizations has more than doubled since 2019.

Food rescue has a role to play in meeting immediate needs, says Jennifer McGlashan, head of operations for Second Harvest in Western Canada. But ultimately, food rescue and food charities are just filling a widening gap that needs to be addressed by government policy, she says.

“COVID escalated our growth,” McGlashan says. What was in 2019 a five-year plan to expand from Second Harvest’s base in Toronto to the rest of Canada accelerated so that by June 2020, with the help of a private grant, the organization was active in every province.

“Pre-COVID, one in eight people were facing food insecurity in Canada. As soon as COVID hit, it became one in seven,” she says.

“Without systemic change, food insecurity is only going to get worse.”

Food insecurity describes inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. Someone experiencing food insecurity might worry about not having enough to eat or, on the severe end of the spectrum, might even go days without meals.

With pandemic supports such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) ending and inflation ongoing, the most recent research showed that in 2021, one in six households in the 10 provinces was struggling with food insecurity.

The highest rate among the provinces was in Alberta, where one in five households was food-insecure in 2021. Food banks in Alberta are seeing increasing numbers of “people on minimum wage that can no longer stretch their dollars to cover their ‘need’ items,” according to Food Bank Canada’s most recent annual HungerCount report.

Unemployment rates that are higher than the national average, rising utility costs such as utility bills that have doubled or even tripled, and public policy decisions such as de-indexing social assistance benefits from 2019 to 2023 are some of the reasons for Alberta’s high rate of food insecurity.

“We know from a national level, but also specifically in Alberta, that the current moment is really tough for a lot of folks,” says Cory Rianson. He is the executive director of Leftovers Foundationa food rescue organization operating primarily in Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg that helps divert surplus food from donors, mainly local food businesses, to non-profit organizations by way of volunteers using an app.

“The issue isn’t the availability of food,” he says. “There’s more than enough food in Canada to feed everyone. The problem is access, and really it’s about income and folks not having the resources to acquire that food.”

Rianson says he thinks there probably always will be a need for food rescue to keep food out of landfills, as it would be difficult to completely eliminate food waste in the system. However, he emphasizes that food rescue is not the solution to food insecurity.

Canada has a long history of turning to food charities to manage food insecurity, says Valerie Tarasuk, lead investigator at PROOFa research program at the University of Toronto that focuses on solutions to food insecurity.

The first food bank in Canada was created in Edmonton in 1981, and other food charities have been around for even longer. During the pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s response to increasing food insecurity was to announced $100 million in funding for food banks and local food organizations. The governments of Ontario, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec made similar investments in food banks and food programs.

“One of the barriers to intelligent public policy around food insecurity is this mythology that somehow, while it’s not perfect, we’re managing the problem by having food charity,” says Tarasuk.

“Not to suggest that (food charity) work is not valuable,” she says. “But we have to reconcile that piece of the equation with this other piece, which is we’ve had food banks for more than 40 years and we have a very serious festering problem of food insecurity in this country.

“Repeatedly, we see messaging that appears to have penetrated both our public and our political leadership that is telling us that you tackle hunger by donating to food banks.”

Although the equation seems simple — that people are hungry and that can be solved by giving them food — Tarasuk says this misses the bigger picture. Food insecurity is a symptom of a deeper problem. It is a sign of deprivation in other areas of lifewith poverty as the root cause.

By the time people are struggling to feed themselves, they are usually also behind on rent, skipping bill payments, unable to afford their medications and sinking into debt. This overall deprivation leads to worse health outcomes by virtually every measure, and increased health-care use and costs.

On top of that, Tarasuk says, food charities are infrequently used and a last resort for most people in need. Only one in five food-insecure households uses food banks, for example, with many preferring to ask for help from friends and family or skip bill payments.

People wait in line for rescued food provided by Alberta Food Rescue and Distribution, founded by Jaquie Duhacek.  One in five households in Alberta is food insecure.

It’s policy changes that will move the needle on food insecurity, Tarasuk says. People need enough money to cover basic living costs. One option would be to set a guaranteed basic income, but another option would be to “piece it together with things like minimum wage, the Canada workers benefit, the Canada child benefit, the GST credit … and various component parts.”

This year’s federal grocery rebatea one-time payment to lower-income Canadians, is a small step in the right direction, she says, but it’s a one-off and simply too little money.

Decades of research globally and within Canada point to the positive effect of social policy measures such as income support for families, higher minimum wages and worker protections such as collective bargaining.

Based on a standardized measure of food insecurity created by the Food and Agriculture Organization, lower-income countries have higher rates of food insecurity than high-income countries, says Tarasuk. But within high-income countries, there is huge variation.

Nordic countries, with their strong social-support programs, have some of the lowest ratessays Tarasuk.

In Norway, for example, 4.3 per cent of the population experienced moderate or severe food insecurity over the most recent study period, from 2019 to 2021. In Canada, the prevalence was 6.5 per cent, while in the United States it was 8.2 per cent.

Within Canada, some of the strongest evidence comes from Newfoundland and Labrador. Over a five-year period from 2007 to 2012, the province implemented a poverty reduction strategy that included a $4 increase to the hourly minimum wage, indexing social assistance to inflation, and decreasing taxes for lower-income households. Although none of these measures was intended to address food insecurity, the rate of food insecurity among households receiving social assistance declined by half.

It’s frustrating to see the research being ignored, says Tarasuk. “We have yet to see a provincial or federal government really designing income supports in a way to optimize the impact on household food security.”

Food insecurity needs to be measured as a policy outcome, she says. “It would become abundantly apparent that throwing tens of millions of dollars at food charities does not move that number.

“People say, ‘We have to do this (food charity) in the meantime,’” she says. “Well, where is the policy that’s happening in the meantime?”

Liana Hwang is a family physician in Alberta and a fellow in global journalism at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

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